Monday, February 18, 2013

Interesting dinosaur

My interest in literature and the arts has faded over the years. The arts have a habit of getting in the way of experience, filtering it, encouraging an indirect (and often government-subsidized) engagement with the world. And the world mediated by pictures, movies, performances, fictions and so on is not really the world, is it?

Besides, the arts aren't what they used to be.

A few interesting dinosaurs still roam the literary landscape, however. Like Tom Stoppard.

Unusually for arts intellectuals these days, his instincts are basically conservative, and his interests range widely and encompass the history of ideas, including mathematics and the sciences. (His play Arcadia bears witness to this.)

Stoppard was born in what is now the Czech Republic just before World War 2, and his (Jewish) family fled the Nazis to the Far East. His father (working as a doctor in Singapore) was captured by the advancing Japanese and died in a prison camp. Stoppard's mother escaped with her two sons to India and married a British army officer, Kenneth Stoppard.

Like many other central Europeans who fled the Nazis (or, in subsequent years, the Soviets) and who eventually found refuge in England, Stoppard embraced English culture with great enthusiasm – despite the fact that the English themselves, sensing that their glory days were behind them, were losing faith in their country and its future.

I came across an interview-based piece on Stoppard by Victoria Glendinning in the weekend press, and scribbled a few notes...

Stoppard dresses in an elegantly old-fashioned manner. He is not interested in clothes, he says: he just likes them.

He still smokes cigarettes. [I have a couple of theories about highly intelligent cigarette smokers, but I'll save them for another time.]

Stoppard: "The centre of gravity of our morality is our literary culture." [But, then, as a playwright he would say that, wouldn't he?]

Stoppard has for decades supported human rights and freedom-of-speech organizations, especially in connection with dissidents in Eastern Europe.

Stoppard: "Ultimately, at the level of government, decisive acts are acts of self-interest." (Thus the lack of international support for dissidents in Belarus, for instance, because Belarus has no oil, just people.)

Two final quotes:

"I can't bear travel. I hate the airport experience. Partly because I no longer like going anywhere anyway, partly because [the travel process] has become dehumanizing. Nobody is to blame. It is progress in operation."

"I am a small-c conservative."

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

State of the Union

A couple of years ago I read a piece on one of those expat websites warning against buying a house in Costa Rica. The neighbours were invariably friendly, but, if you left your house vacant for any length of time, you were liable to find it burgled – a hole smashed in the wall, and your TV relocated to a friendly neighbour's living room. Or so the story went.

A recent Bloomberg report makes it clear that such problems are not confined to developing countries. In the last few years, the percentage of homes in the United States without complete plumbing has risen for the first time in at least five decades due to roving gangs of thieves who strip vacant (often foreclosed) homes of their copper pipes, water heaters and much else besides. Many such houses become worthless, in effect, and have to be demolished.

The percentage of homes without full plumbing has risen by more than 10 percent since 2008. The stripping problem is worse in certain areas, of course. Detroit and Flint, Michigan, for example; Cleveland and Dayton, Ohio; and Buffalo, New York.

But the number of fully plumbed homes declined in all fifty states.

Trends such as these have an impact on the image – and self-image – of the United States. They contribute to a sense that the country is becoming less unified, less intact and less clearly differentiated from the rest of the world. The vision promoted by the Pledge of Allegiance ('one Nation under God, indivisible...') is further undermined, and there is a loss of confidence and trust.

Meanwhile, across the Pacific, China continues its inexorable rise. London's Telegraph reports that China has overtaken the United States as the world's biggest trading nation. The total value of Chinese exports and imports last year was $3.87 trillion, versus $3.82 trillion for the US.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Great minds think alike

The overwhelming majority of intellectuals who work within the arts and humanities take it as axiomatic that the only social and political views which are compatible with an educated and intelligent outlook are left-wing or liberal. They only have to look around them to see this conviction confirmed: virtually all their professional friends and colleagues share it!

But it was not always so. In a recent post bemoaning the lack of ideological diversity amongst contemporary philosophers, I noted that many of their intellectual forebears – some of the greatest names, in fact – had conservative views.

I mentioned Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Hobbes, Descartes, Maistre, Hegel, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Bradley, Frege, Santayana, Heidegger, Ryle and Quine – lumping together some very different styles of thinker. A more considered treatment would group German (and English and American) idealists separately from thinkers in the more scientifically- and mathematically-orientated analytic tradition.

Now, I don't want to imply that all that these thinkers said on matters social and political was good. (Some had quite extreme views, in fact.)

And I am uneasy about the religious component in most conservative thought, and am consequently less interested in forms of conservatism which derive from religious beliefs than secular forms. But it should always be borne in mind that the interplay between politics and religion is never a simple matter.

Take the case of René Descartes, for example. Though he remained a Christian, and though he is most famous for that unfortunate cogito ergo sum argument, his writings are full of passages which give expression to what seems to me like a very modern materialism (or physicalism).

I am drawn to his strong and unsettling skeptical curiosity, and feel certain psychological affinities. (I share his nocturnal tendencies, for example. Early rising can – as his sad fate attests – be fatal.)

Descartes generally avoided social and political themes in his writings, seeing them as being outside the scope of natural philosophy, and part of the domain of experience rather than of theory and reason – but he did have clear and unequivocal views on politics.

Political themes feature in sections of the Discourse on Method. Descartes wrote that systems of law and government are always imperfect, but reform should be cautious and piecemeal, and should be the province of public officials rather than private individuals. He strenuously disapproved of 'those turbulent and unrestful spirits who, being called neither by birth nor fortune to the management of public affairs, never fail to have always in their minds some new reforms.'

His observations on his travels led him to relativistic conclusions in social, political and cultural matters which were associated with an appreciation of the positive role played by customs and traditions.

Descartes was strongly opposed to anything resembling majority rule. Writing to Princess Elizabeth of Bohemia, he went beyond the notion that hereditary monarchs rule by divine right and asserted the Augustinian view that even tyrannical regimes should be obeyed.

He agreed on many points with Machiavelli. For instance, a ruler should insist on the total fidelity of potential rivals and deal harshly with plotters.

But the common people should be treated with moderation, so as not to arouse their hatred and contempt. For them, justice should be dispensed in accordance with familiar customs and laws, 'without excessive rigor in punishment or excessive indulgence in pardoning.'

Clearly, for Descartes, justice in the social realm is not built on any metaphysical notion of natural law: it is a function of power, sovereignty, process and tradition.

I too, as it happens, am very skeptical of any attempt to 'moralize' justice by seeing it as being based on natural law, and am sympathetic to Descartes' pragmatic, custom-respecting approach to social and political questions.

But I recognize that some of his views do betray unacceptable (to us) authoritarian assumptions as well as the limited perspectives of his class and time.